Living with Difference Closer to Home

by Alexei Laushkin

How does God ask us to handle differences in how we relate to one another in the body of Christ? Many Mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal denominations feel painful tension when their desires for unity run up against seemingly irreconcilable differences. This tension leads to some difficult, but important questions.

Questions like, “Do we accept a mushy middle in the pursuit of Christian Unity?” “Do we have to ignore our differences in order to be unified?” “What about theological difference and personal animosity between factions within many denominations?” “Can we really be in unity and not believe all the same doctrines?” “What should our boundaries be?”

The Evangelical impulse with these tensions has historically been to separate and form new bodies. These splits can form out of differences of doctrine, practice, philosophy, or personality. Often, the understanding of the party that is splitting away is that they are just being faithful to a specific mission or vision. It’s not uncommon in America to see churches that split (“reform”) from their parent church and simply move across the street.

But is the tendency to split right? Is it faithful to the will of God and to the Christian mindset as cultivated across the centuries of the church? If it is not right, or at the very least, if the sheer number of splits caused by the impulse towards mission gives us some pause, what should guide us when we are faced with these difficult seemingly irreconcilable moments?

The parable of the wheat and the tares holds several important lessons on this question,

Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared.

So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’

He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’

The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’

But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’

– Matthew 13:24-30

We learn that the tares (injurious weeds resembling wheat when young) are the result of an enemy that has maliciously sowed “bad seed” in the wheat fields. Later on in Matthew 13:38, Jesus explains to his disciples that “the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The tares are the people of the evil one.” And although Jesus distinguished between people who are part of the Kingdom of God and those who are not, St. Augustine rightfully pointed out that the invisible distinction between “wheat” and “tares” is also present in the Church,

I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world. Let us seek after good days, for we are now in evil days; but in the evil days let us not blaspheme, that so we may be able to arrive at the good days.

– Augustine, Sermon #23 on the New Testament

Through this parable, we are told not to gather up the tares in our own power, lest in the process we might uproot the wheat with them. This resonates with a long line of Jesus’s teaching on conflict: turn the other cheek, forgive, go the extra mile, stay with those whom you are committed to, be proactive in conflict resolution, etc. Most of us as Christian leaders fall very short of these basic and plain teachings of Jesus when it comes to handling conflict with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The teaching from the Gospel of Matthew is also very practical. Let’s personalize what St. Augustine said about tares in the Church with an illustration. Say that we suspect a minister in the Church to be a “tare.” This person holds the faith weakly and is not able to articulate even some of the most basic teachings of the faith to his or her congregation. The congregation uses a robust liturgy which covers the creeds, the faith, repentance, forgiveness, and communion with God through the Eucharist. Our Evangelical impulse would be to remove this person from ministry. We ought to think, however, about what is being nurtured in this community of faith. We should be careful not to cause the faith of those in this church to collapse, for what is clear to us may not be seen or understood at all by a young sapling in the faith. To that individual, the minister could be seen as a role model, as a mentor, and as a brother or sister in Christ.

Removing the minister needlessly with unseemly haste is a true scandal in the life of the church. Consider what Jesus said to his disciples about those who preach falsely in the name of Christ,

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

Mark 9:38-41

Two things are at play here. First, anything that is done in the name of Christ and which grows the Kingdom of God or increases people’s faith will also benefit the participant. Second, God can use almost anything to grow the Kingdom of God. And while iron should sharpen iron, the bottom line is that we are not in our own power to lord over our fellow Christians. For our judgment is not perfect and lacks the perfect charity under which we ourselves will be judged.

There are several ways that this understanding can help us deal with differences in the Church where both sides believe, to some extent, that the other is a tare:

    1. It points us to the need to let God be the judge of the works of another.
    2. It points to how we handle difference both structurally and personally.
    3. It gives us a reference point for conscience.
    4. For those of us who believe in the embodiment of the Church, it gives us some ways to think about difference  as well as what our boundary lines ought to be when we relate to others.

Now, it’s important to acknowledge that churches do certainly have to make hard decisions. Those decisions may necessitate or lead to a certain segment leaving the church at some point, but this whole process—legal, personal, and relational—should be in blessing, not in division. God will ultimately judge our decisions. We have to rely on the mercy of God, who will ultimately reconcile all false judgments and reveal all the intentions of our own hearts.

In the meantime, let us work to be peaceable in our disagreements and live by Romans 12:18, “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Let us take seriously the forms of unity while allowing for individual conscience and even gracious exits for those who find that they are not able at this time to be in the same denominational body with us.

Let us always look for ways to strengthen the Kingdom even as we deal with our imperfections on earth. Let us remember that the reality of heaven, which is perfect unity, is still available to us on earth through our relationships with one another. So let us make every effort to live according to the whole counsel on scripture and hear afresh what God says about unity, difference, and mission.

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